Reviews Short Narrative

Legitime Defense (2021) – 2 stars

Director: Gustavo Duc

Writer: Gustavo Duc

Cast: Carolina Rodz, Daniel La Rosa

Running time: 4mins

Perhaps the most famous quote attributed to Jean-Luc Godard is, “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” But rather than some kind of cheat-code for thrilling filmmaking, Godard was probably saying completely the opposite.

In its full context, Godard’s statement seems more like a facetious dig at The Birth of a Nation director D W Griffith, who originated the assertion filmgoers only wanted two things. Godard was releasing Bande à part – a crime thriller which was later described by Amy Taubin of the Village Voice as “a Godard film for people who don’t much care for Godard” – because of its conventional, stripped-back form, which made it more ‘accessible’ to wider (US) audiences than much of his work. But Godard, as someone whose career shows a determination to talk about a great deal more than guns and women, seemed to almost begrudge this.

The full quote begins “What do filmgoers want?’ Griffith asked. ‘A girl and a gun’.” Godard then suggested, “It’s to meet their wishes that I have made, and that Columbia will distribute, Bande à part, a sure-fire story that will sell a lot of tickets.” That reeks of a director being told by a businessman – unaware of the complexity of telling even a ‘simple’ story through film – that he could get better results by just focusing on guns and girls, for the sake of bums in seats.  

Indeed, even in the case of Bande à part, there is much more behind its ability to captivate audiences than the overly simplistic equation Godard was quietly belittling. Gustavo Duc’s short film Legitime Defense also stands as a timely reminder of what can happen if you underestimate the ingredients needed to make for a compelling story.

The film stands at a run-time of just under four minutes – and half of that is made up of credits before and after the less-than-two-minutes of action. When we are finally introduced to our nameless lead (Carolina Rodz), she is sitting at an over-dressed coffee table, placing ice cubes into two tumblers, before pouring a shot of whiskey into one of them.  

When I say the coffee table is over-dressed, I mean that it is littered with props looking to steer us through the story quickly unfolding. There are pictures of Rodz and a man (Daniel La Rosa) standing awkwardly in the space where, in reality, coffee cups, stacks of magazines or the remote for the couple’s cinema-size television would be sitting. The set-dressing here seems conscious that if the audience is going to understand what is quickly unfolding, we will need as many visual signifiers as possible crammed down our throats – but it sacrifices realism in a way that immediately takes us out of the movie. This is not a house where people live and die; it is a set, in which two actors are going through the motions.

Anyway, the pictures don’t really add anything to the plot, beyond what the other photo frames on the nearby mantelpiece tell us. Every shot is of either Rodz or La Rosa – the couple is never in the same frame, telling us very well that the pair have long since drifted apart. To his credit, Duc does reveal the source of that schism interestingly: the camera gradually drifting around Rodz – who has been sitting in profile – to reveal a horrific gash on the far-side of her forehead.

Unfortunately, there is not much more for the audience to engage with than that – no more mystery for us to piece together, or to empathise with. We know exactly what is going to happen, because alongside the pictures of a fractured relationship, and the fact that Rodz has only bothered to fill one glass, a gun has been sitting on the coffee table in plain view for the duration of the scene.

There is only one conceivable outcome, and we have realised it almost a minute before La Rosa stumbles into frame, somehow oblivious to the whole thing. The first thing he notices, rather than the coffee table with an un-holstered weapon in front of the door he enters through, is the shattered mirror around the corner. Apparently, the wound on Rodz’s head was self-inflicted “this time”, to make sure she has a claim to self-defence. Turning again to face the table with a gun on it, the man demands his partner explain herself. She does so by firing into his chest – a wound which seemingly cauterises itself, as only about a teaspoon of blood spills onto a white shirt you would usually expect to be soaked.

That’s it. The film ends. There is no further commentary on what happened, no suggestion of the aftermath. Just a face-value, route-one, sequence in which a domestic abuser got their comeuppance from that woman and her gun. And just as Godard’s withering endorsement of those two factors suggested, without any greater embellishment, it leaves us feeling nothing much at all.

The thing is, there is so much more that the film could have elaborated on. Whether or not Rodz’s character has a wound her partner inflicted on her, justice systems around the world are stacked against women who extract themselves from abusive relationships in this way. In the UK, for example, 108 men were killed by female partners / ex-partners in a 10-year period – stark contrast to the 840 women killed by male partners / ex-partners in the same period. Research by Women’s Aid in 2021 looked at a subset of those 108 cases, finding evidence of abuse in 77%. Despite this, the vast majority of women who killed were convicted of murder or manslaughter – while only 6% of the cases analysed resulted in women being acquitted on grounds of self-defence.

While the camera work might have been decent, and the story seems to have its heart in the right place (though the fact the only evidence of the abuse the woman has endured turns out to be fake is, frankly, a bit off-putting) there is something missing in Legitime Defense. Exactly why this film needed to be this short and direct is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it was made for a particular challenge relating to micro-fiction – and perhaps it did very well in that context. But in the broader world, the film does not do nearly enough to build a living, breathing scenario for us to invest in; to construct tension that will help keep us invested in the unravelling plot; or to address the complex and hard-hitting issues it touches upon.  

Evidently, to make a film you need a great deal more than ‘a girl and a gun’. From where I am sitting, the most frustrating thing about this film is that Gustavo Duc’s other entries to Indy Film Library show he is a filmmaker who very well understands that principle, and regularly delivers upon it. In the films reviewed by fellow critic Tony Moore, Duc’s work creates tension and uncertainty, while constructing characters audiences will empathise with and invest in – and daring to challenge real-world prejudices more fully. I know that he has done better than Legitime Defense, and he undoubtedly will do so again.

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